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Belarusian band Irdorath back on stage after imprisonment

Tatjana Schweizer
May 22, 2024

Two years in prison for playing music at a protest? That's what happened to Vladimir and Nadezhda of the band Irdorath. They recount their experience, one shared by many in Belarus, as they find their way back to music.

A man and a woman perform on the bagpipes onstage.
Irdorath is back onstage again. Above, a concert shot from 2021Image: Bernd Sonntag

In Belarus, there are currently 144 political prisoner per 1 million inhabitants, according to the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna and United Nations estimates. In comparison, Russia, where repression has been drastically increasing, has a ratio of four per 1 million, according to the Russian human rights group Memorial

Beyond the current estimates, many stories remain unheard: Merely reaching out to independent media can be grounds for punishment in both countries.

Nadezhda and Vladimir are the leads of the Belarusian fantasy-folk band Irdorath. They received a two-year prison sentence for performing music at a protest against Alexander Lukashenko, the long-serving president of Belarus.

Freed one year ago, they now live in Berlin. It's only recently that the couple has found the strength to talk about the suffering that thousands of Belarusians, including artists, opposition politicians and independent journalists, have experienced in the past years.

A man and a woman sit in chairs in front of drums and other instruments while talking seriously.
It's taken a long time for Nadezhda and Vladimir to discuss their experiences in prison in BelarusImage: DW

Repression still strong four years after mass protests

Vladimir and Nadezhda are standing in their small rehearsal room in Berlin. It used to be a kitchen before they renovated and repurposed it. "The first time we walked in here, we saw the red-green floor, which we had to change immediately, of course," Vladimir says. Red and green are the colors of the Belarusian state flag and, for many, a symbol of the Lukashenko dictatorship that has robbed many Belarusians of their freedoms — and some of their lives.

Flashback: It's 2020, a presidential election year in Belarus. Lukashenko has been ruling the country for 26 years. His strongest political opponents are either arrested or barred from running, sparking protests.

Many Belarusians unite behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who campaigns in place of her imprisoned husband. Yet despite unprecedented popular support, she only earns 10% of the vote — according to official state statistics. 

People take to the streets en masse to protest election fraud. Artists also join in. Vladimir and Nadezhda participate in the peaceful protests and play music on their favorite instrument, the bagpipes. They demand free and fair elections and an end to police violence against the demonstrators — but officials respond with even more brutality. The protests become less visible and repression increases. 

A man and a woman wearing white hooded outfits and carrying bagpipes stand in a white-walled chamber.
Vladimir and Nadezhda, of the fantasy-folk band Irdorath, spent two years in prison after performing music at a protestImage: Irdorath

The situation remains unchanged today. All opposition politicians, political activists and representatives of independent media are either in prison or exile.

Moreover, the regime doesn't hasn't let up in the slightest. The internet is trawled for individuals who expressed themselves freely four years ago, whether by participating in protests, writing critical comments online or even just liking someone else's statement.

According to Viasna, the courts handed down at least 161 sentences for politically motivated crimes in April alone — and it could be even more. The non-governmental organization, which has to work in exile, assumes there are cases it doesn't know about.

Political prisoners have to wear identification

Nadezhda and Vladimir are not immediately arrested at the demonstration, but they are surveilled.

One year after the contested election, while celebrating Nadezhda's birthday with friends, masked armed forces burst in on them and begin shooting, as one of their friends later related.

Six musicians are arrested, including Vladimir and Nadezhda, who are then sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly "grossly violating public order."

A man and a woman sort through letters on a table.
While in prison, Vladimir and Nadezhda wrote each other lettersImage: DW

"I felt like I had landed in the deepest pit of hell," Vladimir tells DW when asked about his time in Belarusian prison. "Some 24 people and even more colonies of cockroaches shared just some 20 square meters. There was no window, no fresh air could enter the room," Vladimir said, adding that this was easier to withstand, however, than the guards' regular harassment.

In Belarusian prisons, inmates who "trend towards extremism or other destructive activities" — in other words, political activists, journalists, artists and anyone who said something "wrong" or approved of the "wrong" thing — have to wear a yellow marking to distinguish them from other prisoners. Marked prisoners are controlled more strictly, searched more frequently and punished more quickly; prominent ones are also typically placed in isolation. Some have not been heard from in more than a year.

Free again

After two years in prison, Vladimir and Nadezhda are both released on the same day. "Like in a good or bad fairytale," Vladimir says. Upon reuniting, they go to a lake and play their bagpipes. "That felt good," Nadezhda recalls. 

A man and a woman stand in front of a lake while playing bagpipes.
Vladimir and Nadezhda playing their bagpipes at the lake after being released from Belarusian prisonImage: Irdorath

But things don't stay good for long. They don't want to speak much about the time directly after their release, only briefly mentioning that the police didn't leave them alone. They felt that staying in Belarus wasn't an option, so they first traveled to Poland before moving to Berlin a few months later.

"We came to Berlin because Germany with its medieval festivals is the center of our artistic universe," Vladimir says. Irdorath has been known for years among medievalist circles in Germany and other European countries. In 2017, they became the first Belarusian band to perform at Germany's world-famous Wacken Open Air festival.

Starting from scratch

Once in Berlin, the couple has to basically start over from scratch with their musical project, re-forming a band and returning to their instrument. "You want to play like you did before prison; you look at your fingers, but things simply don't work anymore, so you spend hours practicing with a metronome," Nadezhda explains.

The couple initially remain quite withdrawn. It's difficult for them to be part of the Belarusian diaspora in Berlin. Too often the conversation turns to topics they would rather avoid so as not to be constantly reminded of their time in prison. Even telephoning with their families is a challenge. "It's hard even today to talk with people who did not spend time in prison, who have not experienced similar things," Vladimir says. 

But music helps. Performing onstage again has been their main goal ever since their release. "They destroyed lots of things in our lives, but we don't intend to just accept this. No regime can take our life's work away from us," Nadezhda says.

In mid-May, the band performed their first concert since being released — a great success. Additional appearances at Dark Metal and Gothic festivals have been announced. Following the concert, the band wrote on their Instagram account: "The first hardest step has been done, and we are starting a new era! Thanks to you, we begin the way with great warmth in our hearts!"

This article was translated from German.